Peter Wright is a personal development and performance coaching specialist based in North Devon in South West England. He is also Master Hypnotherapist, Master Practitioner of NLP, Cricket and Rugby Coach and a lifelong walking enthusiast. He runs walking retreats for groups and ‘walk and coach’ sessions for individuals that give opportunity for guided ‘me time’ enabling mental and physical renewal. Here he discusses the healing power of walking for mental health.
We always think that we can control our bodies with our minds, and the fact is, that when our mind is going haywire, the body blazes those haywire things into feelings and makes us feel uncomfortable and stressed out. Once this happens, we are unable to invoke the body to help the mind because we're all one system.
However, the more we invoke the body to help the mind, the better it is in terms of synchronising our well-being. Many people suggest ‘going for a walk’ when we are feeling mentally unaligned; it isn’t going to necessarily cure it - but it's a good place to start.
Making it work for us effectively is all down to how we direct our attention when we are doing it. If you are the sort of person that will go out for a walk but take everything with you, all the baggage, then you’ll be paying more attention to the baggage than to the environment or how you’re moving through it.
So how do we leave the baggage behind? Well we don’t - we can’t! However, we CAN redirect our attention to what's in the foreground. If we are walking along a coast path or a corn field we're being bombarded by essential data, and the more we pay attention to it and really have a curiosity about it and explore it, the more everything else will fade away into the background. It sounds simple because it is simple, but quite often simple isn't always easy and vice versa.
Our energy flows where attention goes, and fully engaging with our attention plugs us into a better of control of our mental state. Therefore, walking for wellbeing needs to be purposeful; it has to have focus. There is no point in wandering out of the door and down a country lane as there is no frame of purpose around it. Plan the route; A to B, or a circular route that covers a few pieces of interesting or challenging terrain. Take up one of the popular challenges that are around at the moment such as ‘walk 1000 miles in 2018’ and set yourself up with an achievement.
A purpose gets us out the front door. After that, it's a matter of, ‘well how much of me am I taking along the way?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘How am I going to use my inner resources to take in as much of the information that is coming at me?’ Because when we step into any new environment or different environment we start redirecting our attention and developing our curiosity. Even something as simple as just closing our eyes and noticing our breath or noticing our heartbeat will set up that purpose!
My walking retreats are really focused on this. There is a little preamble to each walk for the reason that it sets up the frame of what we're doing and how we're going to be doing it. We might talk about the nature surrounding us or how we want to bring our mental and physical self to the walk that we're going to be doing. So that helps to set up the frame, the frame of purpose, the frame of noticing, the frame of curiosity and just what can we gain from this. How can we better gain it? We call this ‘Open Focus’.
When we lower the frequency of our brain waves we're able to direct our attention in a much better way. Whereas, if we're at a high level of brain waves and stressed out at work, we can only direct our attention to what is causing that stressful feeling which is totally in the foreground. Our brain waves are at a very high frequency as a result. Walking, and focussing on our breathing and surroundings has the opposite effect.
I'm lucky enough to live in a beautiful, rural county and on the coast and I can gaze into and observe the sea with its waves and tides with its rhythmical beat. There's a great metaphor about waves on the beach. Waves can be like thoughts - thoughts just arrive in our mind - waves just arrive on the beach and we will watch the waves break. Thoughts arrive and break into our consciousness – and we notice them, and that's our experience, that’s us! With waves they break then head away, then another one arrives, then another one arrives. Our thoughts are very much like that, and we can choose to pay attention to one or two of those waves and then let them go. But on a day where there's rough seas and the big waves keep coming, we don't have to give every single one of them our endless attention and give them importance. They just keep arriving, and they will dissipate just as quickly as they break onto the beach. So therefore, they are a moving, transient energy that arrives on the shore.
Some days the sea is flatter. And the waves are very little, inconsequential. Some days the sea is quite rough, and the waves are quite spectacular. If we're caught up in those waves, we'll get bruised and battered. But on a nice, grounded, calm sea day, we can just let our thoughts float off if we so desire.